In no particular order, here are the best new books I read in 2015: novels, poetry collections, history. The links will take you to more information about the books.

Worm by Anthony Neil Smith. A crime novel in the new North Dakota of oil fields and swarms of people looking to make a lot of fast money. When one of the main bad guys is a no-rules, murderous war criminal from the former Yugoslavia who lives in an RV in the Walmart parking lot and is an oil-rig foreman, you know you are in the hard-boiled world of fiction in which Smith excels. The novel is raw and violent, and it needs to be — Smith’s characters are living a raw and violent existence. Many characters are unredeemable. But not all: some scurry, even in the midst of doing some pretty evil things, to reclaim their humanity, decency — and their hope.

Vanilla Lies by Bartenn Mills. The Forest City, Iowa, crime novelist set her latest book in both the high levels and fringes of Hollywood, plots it with twists, turns and a few long-held secrets, and gives us a protagonist who’s hardly as plain as her last name makes her sound.

Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan. A terrific new novel by the Minnesota author of The Cape Ann, Gardenias and others. This a prequel to The Cape Ann, set in a fictional southwestern Minnesota small town. Its story goes from 1900 through the Great Depression, and brings back some beloved characters from The Cape Ann. The characters live, and so do we — which means we share their emotions, the good and, often in this novel, their anguish and grief.

Insurgent Democracy: The Nonpartisan League in North American Politics, by Michael J. Lansing. A well-researched and strong read about a period of political upheaval in the Midwest — with moments of economic hope for lower-income and rural residents; but also violence; unconstitutional behavior by Minnesota’s top politicians — that ran parallel to the start of World War I and helped paved the way for the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota,

Running to the Fire by Tim Bascom. The second memoir by Bascom set in the Ethopia of his youth. His parents were missionaries. They, the author and his two brothers witness and live in the events of the late-1970s civil war, a time of fear and courage, and, sometimes, even grace.

Rel[am]ent by Jamison Crabtree. A soul-baring poetry collection driven by grief and loneliness.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough: America’s best-known historian and biographer has written a compelling biography of the pioneers of motorized flight. The Wrights’ success did not come from luck or a few trial-and-error flights. Rather, it was a result of great engineering, careful science, and a close-knit family and small circle of friends who believed in the brothers’ insistence on getting it right. And they did.

Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson: A book that is part history and part biography, this explores how the composer Dmitri Shostakovich survived the Soviet Union’s Great Terror of the 1930s — which killed many of his family and friends — to write music that lifted the souls of the people of his hometown of Leningrad, especially during the siege of 1941 in World War II, but also in the aftermath of the slaughter, show trials, betrayals and disappearance of millions in the 1930s.

Uncertain Beginnings by Jamie Lee Scott. It’s not a full novel, but a novella that kicks off a new crime series by the best-selling Forest City, Iowa, author. She does her homework — ride-alongs with police, interviews with medical examiners, etc. — and it shows in her books.

(I know that I’ve included books by authors I know. But they are not shameless plugs. I’ve been fortunate to live or work in two cities that are home to some very talented writers.)

 

 

 

 

Here’s a reminder that Marshall Festival 2015 is about to start at Southwest Minnesota State University. It runs Thursday through Saturday.

There’s a good lineup of authors. Some are reading from their works, others are will be leading panel discussions. The schedule has a strong emphasis on writers who are from, or who write about, the prairie or regional writers in general. One discussion will, in fact, talk about “promoting and preserving rural literature.”

That may mean writing about farm life or small towns, or enjoying nature under the open skies of the Midwest. But it doesn’t have mean that: Another panel discussion, led by SMSU English Department Chairman Neil Smith and Ben Sobieck, is about one of the most contemporary of topics  — “Writing the Oil Boom: The New North Dakota.” Smith has already done that very well, with his novel Worm showing the harsh and seamy side of an oil boom that’s jammed thousands of people together in conditions that have often overwhelmed North Dakota’s infrastructure, as well as the human spirit. It’s like the Old West and a gold rush at the same time, a lot of people looking for a lot of money fast.

Other panels will focus on practical aspects of writing and publishing.

The lineup of readers and speakers includes several current and retired SMSU professors and alumni, and other authors from the region. There will also be a reading from Yellow Medicine Review, the literary journal published by SMSU that highlights indigenous authors.

I am looking forward to hearing the great Phil Dacey read Friday night. And SMSU professor Susan McLean — who has been riding a great wave of critical praise from places like the New York Times and the (London) Times Literary Supplement for her own original formal-verse poetry as well as her translations of the Roman poet Martial — is part of a panel discussion Saturday afternoon.

I will be part of a joint reading at 1 p.m. Thursday, along with Alan Davis, a writer and professor at Minnesota State University, Moorhead.

The mid-19th century writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau has long been a revered figure in America — a symbol of American individualism and self-reliance, and often cited when we want to point out the problems of excessive materialism and stressful modern life. He’s famous for, among things, saying life can be better if we slow down and “simplify, simplify, simplify.”

He was also a strong and consistent opponent of slavery, and, was and remains important in reminding us to care for and appreciate nature.

A story in the recent issue of The New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz says, however, that there’s not much else to like or respect about Thoreau. He was cranky, cold-hearted and his philosophies were wildly inconsistent. He lived in a very narrow and sheltered slice of the world, and was naive about the rest of the world — especially so with the poor and farmers. He romanticized both groups and failed to fully grasp the hardships of poverty or 19th-century farm life. His naivete fed an arrogance that makes much of his philosophy and advice impractical and, at times, worthy of ridicule, Schulz says.

Here’s the story. It’s a thoughtful piece, and it’s not too long, but at the same time effectively punctures Thoreau’s status.

•••

Here are links to a couple of books I just finished reading. I recommend them both:

Vanilla Lies, a suspense novel by Forest City, Iowa, author Bartenn Mills.

The Wright Brothers, a short but compelling and informative biography of the inventors of and first to fly a motorized airplane, by the renowned historian David McCullough.

And then, this poem by Lauren K. Alleyne. I heard her read it Monday night, October 12, at Waldorf College — one of many tough-subject poems she read in what seems to be an ongoing exploration of grief, the hardness of life and the grace that we can still find in it.

Boxelder Bug Days, the annual celebration in Minneota, Minn., starts this Thursday and runs through the weekend. There is a lot going on in what is, year after year, one of the busiest summer festivals in the Midwest.

I hope those who are around for Bug Days make sure they visit the new home of Minneota’s public library — the remarkably renovated Big Store. The Friends of the Minneota Library will be the grand marshals for this year’s parade and justifiably so. The Big Store, with its 5,000-square-foot main floor, is on the National Registry of Historic Places. With a renovation that was both sweeping in scale and carefully attentive, the Friends of the Library have given the once-grand Big Store new life and new purpose. The Big Store was, for decades, home of a large department store, which closed in 1972, and then was used mainly for warehouse roles.

Another piece of Minneota history — and history of the rural Midwest — for you to take a look at: You can still download free PDF copies of my new chapbook, The Adventurous Life of Tilla Dahl Deen, by clicking here. She was a longtime Minneota resident, a child during the town’s sometimes-raucous pioneer days and a civic leader as Minneota grew. The chapbook is part of my work-in-progress new book about life in the rural Midwest, using the Minneota experience as the lens to see it through, during 1940.

With Boxelder Bug Days, Minneota, Minn.’s, annual town celebration, two weeks away, today seems like a good time to post a downloadable version of my new chapbook on one of Minneota’s pioneering figures.

Click this link to download the book:

AA TILLA FINAL

The Adventurous Life of Tilla Dahl Deen is a short biography of a remarkable woman who moved to Minneota as a young girl in the mid-1870s. She survived all kinds of 19th century disasters, frights and tragedies — wolves, killer blizzards, a death in the family and more — to become fully and comfortably situated in a vibrant 20th-century life. (One Christmas in the 1920s, she was the MC of a big party, and led everyone in making Shakespearean toasts. Not bad for woman whose first home in southwest Minnesota was a one-room sod shanty!)

It’s her story, but it is also the story of the first 75 tears of Minneota and, in a several ways ways, the story of the rural Midwest from 1870 into the 1950s.

This chapbook is an excerpt from my book-in-progress, a history book about life and issues in Minneota and the rural Midwest in the year 1940. A lot went on in 1940, a year that’s often thought of as simply being sandwiched between the Great Depression and America’s entry into World War II. It was that. But it was quite a bit more, too. Tilla’s story is a prelude to all that occurred in 1940.

We printed a small number of hard-copy editions of the chapbook in July. I have since had requests from folks who wanted read it, too. Here it is:

AA TILLA FINAL

Reed Lovsness starred for the Milroy Yankees' 1954 state amateur baseball champions.

Photo from milroyyankees.com

Fans who watched Reed Lovsness pitch in townteam baseball games in the mid-1950s — and thousands did — saw one of southwest Minnesota’s most legendary athletes take the mound: a tall fireballer who rarely lost and never was afraid to be tough with a ball gripped in the fingers of his right hand.

He was so good that teams in the area paid him secretly to pitch for them on weekends, even though the game was formally called “amateur” ball.

But there is evidence from well beyond southwest Minnesota of how good a pitcher Lovsness was, and how much in demand he was.

Lovsness turned 90 on May 1. To mark that birthday, he and his sons Lindon and Kirk shared some of that evidence, and their thoughts on it.

Since his military service played a role in the path his baseball career took, it’s perhaps fitting to tell his story this Memorial Day Weekend.

The evidence of his abilities comes in the records of his time playing in southwest Minnesota in the 1950s, certainly. But additionally, his sons shared a handful of letters, now yellowed by time and bearing creases from where they were folded and put away for years in a box at a farmhouse.

They are letters written to Lovsness in 1953 by officials of the Pittsburgh Pirates, imploring him to return to an organization he had pitched in for three seasons in the late 1940s before joining the U.S. Army for three years.

The most insistent of the letters, dated Sept. 15, 1953, is a type-written message signed with a blue pen in an upward-slashing stroke by George Sisler, the major league Hall of Fame first baseman who twice batted better than .400 in a season and spent several years as director of scouting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, then the Pirates. (see copy of letter at end of this blog)

Sisler was trying to do more than twist Lovsness’ arm, it seems.

“I think it would be wise for you to consider very seriously the idea of quitting professional baseball before actually doing so,” the letter from Sisler said. “If I were in your shoes, and if our reports are true, I would certainly start out next spring and make a serious effort to get to the top. It could be that you would be making a grave mistake by not giving professional baseball a further definite try.”

Earlier in 1953, in May, the Pirates assistant to the president had written Lovsness with a letter perhaps less stern than Sisler’s, but no less urgent. It offered to pay for Lovsness to travel to Pittsburgh to work out for Sisler and another major league Hall of Famer, the legendary Branch Rickey, who was Pittsburgh’s president/general manager.

“[They were] begging him to fly out at the Pirates’ expense,” said an admiring Lindon Lovsness of Cottonwood, Reed’s son. “For a one-day try out.”

The explanation for the Pirates’ intense interest in a 28-year-old farmer three years removed from his last pro game is two-fold. Reed Lovsness was good. And the Pirates of the early 1950s were not good. In 1953, they were early in a stretch of futility that lasted almost a decade. They lost 101 or more games three years in a row from 1952-54, and finished last in the eight-team National League in five of eight seasons between 1950 and 1957. In 1953, they were in a desperate hunt for talent when they came looking for Lovsness with letters aimed at leveraging the two famous names in their front office.

But Lovsness never returned to the Pirates.

Why he didn’t is a question that produces answers that vary to slight degree: did the letters from the Pirates get accidentally put away by his mother, who didn’t realize their value and didn’t tell Reed about them? Did she deliberately hide them to keep her son closer to the farm? Or did he know about them, and simply set them aside himself, deciding to move on with life?

Reed, Lindon and Kirk have thoughts on that. But the core fact is that Reed didn’t leave, and instead stayed near Cottonwood and built a long life around farming, family, and amateur baseball. He’s best-known locally for the three seasons he pitched for the terrific Milroy Yankees amateur teams of 1953-1955. In 1954, Lovsness posted a record of 18-0 for the Yankees, who won the state amateur championship. In the state title game, he struck out a record 20 opposing batters as the Yankees won.

After pitching three years in the Pirates’ minor league system in the late 1940s, he pitched another three years with a traveling U.S. Army team. He later told Kirk that he was at his ballplaying peak while with the Army, when he regularly faced opponents he said where the quality of pros in the low minor leagues. That may have helped keep the Pirates interested in him.

While in the service, he married his wife Betty, and, with farmland west of Cottonwood, he was at one of those crossroads where a choice sometimes has to be made between dream and responsibility, between staying where he was raised, or moving on. He was not alone in facing such a choice at that time: after decades of rural population increases from the late 19th century to 1940, the population throughout the rural Midwest dropped in a quick, unending downward spiral after World War II. People were drawn more and more to work and lifestyles in cities, and technology advances allowed farming to be done on larger scales with fewer people. In Minnesota, for instance, 50.2 percent of the state population in 1940 was considered rural. By 1950, that had dropped to 45.5 percent and by 1960 to 37.8 percent.

Still, for Lovsness, signs seemed to say he would return to the farm.

Amateur baseball – or town-team ball — in Minnesota in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s was a big-time game. There were 799 teams in the state in 1946, mostly composed of men out of the war or up-and-comers hoping to play college or pro ball, according to a July 26, 2013, story by Phil Ervin of Fox Sports North. Some already had been pro players, like Lovsness, and found they could still be paid — under the table, or in side arrangements with local businesses — and make as much as they would in the minor leagues.

Lovsness worked out an arrangement with Milroy to be paid a portion of the team’s net income at the end of the season, and wound up earning more than the $250 a month he had been paid in the minors.

Milroy, a small town of less than 300, put together a terrific team, both of locals and imports from nearby like Lovsness. The Yankees were consistently among the best teams in the state (and still are today), and had a reach that went well beyond their immediate locale. They commonly drew crowds of between 1,000 and 2,000 on Sunday afternoons – bigger attendance than some major league teams had during those same years. Their brash and intense manager, Bob Zwach, got his picture on Wheaties boxes in the 1980s. Two of its early team leaders, including Zwach, are in the Minnesota amateur baseball Hall of Fame. The Yankees are a central subject in a recent history book on baseball in rural America, written by Texas A&M historian and professor David Vaught.

Like a lot of rural boys who grew into ballplayers, Lovsness honed his skills on the farm and thought of the major leagues as he did so.

“I never owned a bicycle [as a young boy],” he is quoted as saying in an official team history written by Joe Kemp on the Milroy Yankees web site. “I put up a square [target] on our machine shed and threw and threw and threw, day after day. I was pretending that I was in the big leagues, and I was pitching seven innings.”

But before there was Milroy, there was baseball for Lovsness in Florida, in Pennsylvania, in South Carolina, in Alaska, and a host of other places that kept him — for years — the object of attention of the Pirates organization.

When he was 20, the web site said, Lovsness saw a brochure for the Joe Stripps Baseball School in Orlando, Fla. He took the winter bus to Florida and participated in the camp for $75. The Pirates signed him out of the camp for $2,000.

He graduated from Cottonwood High School in 1943. The Stripps camp he took part in was one of several during the 1940s, many of them the brainchild of or inspired by Branch Rickey, himself legendary for his role in helping Jackie Robinson break the major league color barrier in 1947.

Rickey was the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1940s and became president of the Pirates in 1951. In the 1930s, he had built the St. Louis Cardinals into the best team in the National League by crafting an expansive minor league system that hoarded hundreds of talented ballplayers and fed the best to the major-league team. Rickey aimed to do the same for the Dodgers after World War II, inviting hundreds of ballplayers just out of the war to camps, where – with Sisler then the Dodgers’ director of scouting — he hoped to build a big farm system for Brooklyn.

“The Dodgers developed the largest and most successful farm system during the postwar years,” William Marshall wrote in his book Baseball’s Pivotal Era: 1945-1951. “Branch Rickey’s organizational genius was again at work. By emphasizing ‘quality out of quantity,’ the Dodgers by 1947 were stoking farm clubs with players developed through tryout camps at Pensacola, Florida; Thomasville, North Carolina; and San Bernardino, California. The camps, which were like college campuses, had bowling alleys, swimming pools, and other recreational facilities. The players ate at well-stocked training tables. At Pensacola, the players were divided into nine teams. Each team had a manager who was responsible for familiarizing himself with his players’ capabilities and personalities. Scouts watched every workout game and then gathered with Dodger staff at the end of each day to analyze talent well into the night. At the beginning of the minor-league season, more than a thousand men had been evaluated.”

At the camp he attended, there were 200 other players, Lovsness said. But he stood out. He threw hard, and he threw strikes. And he was helped by a willingness to throw at batters’ heads, which, back then, were not protected with batting helmets. Batters just wore their cloth uniform caps to the plate.

Not that he liked throwing at batters, but it was part of the requirement for succeeding in the camps, Lovsness recalled: a pitcher had to show he not only had the talent, but the temperament, for pro ball.

“I got to pitch and I stopped ’em cold,” Lovsness said in an April 13 interview. “At that time, baseball was a tough game, boy. We threw right at the batters. We had to.

“We had a young pitcher from Minneapolis, and he wouldn’t throw at the batters. The next day he was gone. So I knew I had to throw at them, and I did.”

Lovsness still remembers the beanball sign his managers gave pitchers in the camp: a flick of the thumb against the index finger. There was a gesture and a sound, the thumb snapping upward. More than 60 years later, he could replicate the motion and the noise.

“He’d flick that thumb up in the air, and you knew what you had to do,” Lovsness said. “It was a different world,” he added, saying that beanballs are far less tolerated today.

Lovsness was chosen the starting pitcher for one of the two teams in the camp-ending all-star game.

As the long tryout ended, Lovsness was offered a contract by the Pirates and also a scholarship to pitch for the University of Georgia. He turned down the scholarship and signed with the Pirates.

According to the definitive baseball statistics web site Baseball-Reference.com, Lovsness’ minor-league playing height and weight were 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds.

In 1947, he pitched 193 innings for Rehoboth Beach, Del., of the Class D Eastern Shore League. He won 9 games, lost 15 and had a 4.38 ERA for a team that wasn’t very good — finishing with a record of 49-75, 41 games out of first place. Lovsness’ ERA was the second-best on the team, behind the 2.83 ERA of a left-hander named Joe Muir, who went on to pitch two seasons in the majors for Pittsburgh.

The next year, Lovsness did better and so did Rehoboth Beach. He had a record of 9-5 with an ERA of 3.11 in 31 games and 133 innings, as the team raised its record to 60-65. Lovsness was promoted before the season ended, however, to York, Pa., of the Class B Interstate League.

With York in 1948, Lovsness pitched in 10 games, including a spectacular performance in which he entered a game in relief in the fourth inning. He pitched 14 consecutive scoreless innings to win the game, and drew attention from the minor league team in New Orleans. York finished third in the Interstate League and three of its players went on to the major leagues.

In 1949, Lovsness pitched 16 games and 87 innings for the Uniontown Coal Barons of the Class C Middle Atlantic League, where just two years before Whitey Ford had pitched. Lovsness had a record of 2-6 with a 6.31 ERA, for a below-average team, but also batted .333. Three of his teammates at Uniontown played in the majors eventually.

But it was about then that Lovsness’ baseball career and life took different directions.

His father Louis had died in 1948, leaving his mother Ellen and brother Rollan at home. In 1950, another war broke out, this time in Korea. Reed was drafted by the Army and assigned to a traveling baseball team, stationed in various places, including in Alaska for more than a year of his hitch. In 1951, in the service in Colorado Springs, he met Betty. They were married in June 1951.

He pitched for the Fifth Army baseball team in Alaska, with several other pros, providing entertainment and respite to troops for whom the prospect of deployment to Korea was real. More than a third of Lovsness’ unit in Alaska was shipped to Korea in time for a large and fierce Chinese counterattack with infantry infiltration.

“The Chinese attacked. They had all those soldiers and it was just wave after wave,” Lovsness said in 2011. “There were just horrendous [American] casualties.”

There was a 60 percent casualty rate in the soldiers from Lovsness’ unit who were sent to Korea, he said.

“I made the baseball team and that probably saved my life,” he said, because the ballplayers were not shipped to Korea. “God was looking out for me.”

And the Pirates were still on the lookout for him.

While he was in Alaska, a letter was sent to his parents’ home back near Cottonwood, he said in an interview for a story in December 2011. The letter was from the Pirates organization telling him he had been sold to the New Orleans minor league team, after he had turned down a move to Charleston, S.C. New Orleans would have been another step up the ladder closer to the major leagues.

However, he said in 2011 and 2015, he never saw the letter until he discovered the box almost 40 years later. He believes his mother stowed it and other correspondence from the Pirates away without ever looking at their contents.

“She just didn’t even look,” Reed said, believing his mother didn’t deliberately hide them from him. “But it was sort of a crazy thing to do.”

His son Lindon said he believes Reed’s mother may have kept them away from him on purpose, even burning one. Two of the remaining five letters are signed by Sisler. “I get chills when I see Sisler’s signature,” Lindon said.

Another letter, dated May 22, 1953, was written by Harold G. Roettger, assistant to the president (Rickey).

“Dear Reed,” Roettger’s letter began, “You may recall that I wrote you last September 12 regarding the procedure which you were to follow if you desired reinstatement to the active list upon your discharge from military service.

“It is my understanding that you have been discharged and that you are now on the Restrict List of the Charleston club, having failed to sign and report this spring.

“Our reports on you, as I told you in my previous letter, have been good and if you do have a future in baseball you should be pitching professionally somewhere this season. The Charleston club has given us permission to contact you. Accordingly, I am writing this letter to invite you to come to Pittsburgh at our expense to work out here under Mr. Rickey and George Sisler. After seeing you pitch, they can better advise you as to whether or not you should give thought to reporting to the Charleston or perhaps to another club, should Charleston be willing to reassign your contract.

“You may recall that Calvin Hogue remained out of baseball for some time until somewhat similarly invited to return to the active list a year ago and his history since that date speaks for itself. The same sort of opportunity can be yours if you make the most of it.”

While the Pirates lost a lot of games in the early 1950s, Branch Rickey’s genius was again taking hold. Through shrewd minor league trades and by building another solid farm system, he began grooming many gifted young players — including the great Roberto Clemente — and in 1960, the Pirates won the World Series.

Could Reed Lovsness have been part of that rise to glory in Pittsburgh? He doesn’t speculate himself, nor does his son Kirk.

Kirk Lovsness said he thinks it is possible his father simply put the letters away himself, and moved on with life, rediscovering them many years later. Not only did Reed have his father’s farmland to manage, but he added more land.

“He very seldom talked about playing pro ball until just recently,” Kirk said in April 2015. “In 1952 while he was still in the Army he bought his uncle’s farm. When he was discharged he was married and didn’t want to live on the road like he had. He said he could earn more farming and playing amateur ball for Milroy than he could in the Pirates organization. I think he got the letters and just put them away so he wouldn’t look back.

“I’m sure his mother would rather have him around than away all year playing ball; he was already gone for six years and his father died in 1948 and she would have wanted him to come back to the farm. He didn’t talk much at all about pro ball and kept a pretty low profile about it. He said when he was playing amateur ball it wasn’t uncommon for the opposing fans to ride him about not making it in pro ball — but I think there was a lot more heckling then than there is now. They served a lot of beer and it was just part of the game experience.”

With Milroy, Lovsness played from 1953-55, then pitched for several other teams in the area before retiring in the late 1950s. He is a member of the Milroy Yankees Hall of Fame.

“When Reed would pitch you would here a lot of thuds in the catchers mitt…,” Milroy teammate Joe Dolan said in a quote posted on the Yankees’ web site. “He threw hard and was fun to play behind.”

In the Milroy Yankee history written by Joe Kemp, Bob Zwach remembers crowds as large as 2,000 people on a Sunday afternoon during the 1953-1955 period, with $1,000 worth of beer being sold. Farmers, families, fans — everyone came for a full day out.

Some came to make money, too, wrote Kemp, quoting Lovsness who said some in the crowd were bettors.

“They would walk up and down the third baseline with fist full of money asking for bets,” Lovsness said. “I imagine those who bet for Milroy made a lot of money, because they would always buy the players a beer afterwards, and we won many of those games.”

As Kirk Lovsness said, it appears Reed also made money pitching in those amateur games.

After he left the service in 1952, Reed turned down an offer to pitch for neighboring Marshall and accepted Bob Zwach’s offer to pitch for Milroy, wrote Texas A&M historian David Vaught in his 2012 book The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America. Zwach and others considering the recruitment of Lovsness as Milroy’s greatest coup, the difference, Zwach said, between the Yankees being “a good team and a great team.”

Vaught wrote: “The lanky right-hander accepted Zwach’s offer because while having made $250 a month in pro ball and entertaining similar offers to pitch for Marshall, he eventually raked in twice that much playing for Milroy. The money came not from salary, because that was against the rules, but from shares of the team’s income left over at the end of the season after all expenses were paid, as Zwach explained it…”

There were other forms of richness for Lovsness close to home. He ended up owning about 400 acres of farm land, on which he grew grain crops. He and Betty have been married for 64 years, or two years longer than George Sisler’s letter first asked for Lovsness to reconsider baseball. He’s been a lifelong member of St. Lucas Lutheran Church, a country church a couple of miles north of his farm. Family has long been close: his mother Ellen lived until 1980 and both of his sons and their families live in the Cottonwood area.

While he’s had no regrets, there are times when Reed wonders about what could have happened. Although he said no to Charleston, he would have strongly considered New Orleans, had he known about the sale of his contract, he said in 2011.

“If I had to do it over, I don’t think I would have done it differently,” he said in 2011. “I would have had a different life, you know? I wouldn’t have the good wife I have, and all kinds of other things that have made my life good.”

Sources:

Personal interviews with Reed Lovsness, Kirk Lovsness and Lindon Lovsness

Letters from Pittsburgh Pirates organization to Reed Lovsness

The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America by David Vaught. 2013, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland

Baseball’s Pivotal Era: 1945-1951 by William Marshall. 1999, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky

Healing Waters Parish monthly newsletter. December 2011, Hanley Falls, Minnesota

State Library of Iowa, tables prepared from U.S. Census Bureau data

Milroy Yankees official team history, Joe Kemp. http://www.milroyyankees.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Story on Minnesota amateur baseball history, Phil Ervin. July 26, 2013, Fox Sports North network

A letter from Hall-of-Famer George Sisler saying Lovsness would be making a

A letter from Hall-of-Famer George Sisler saying Lovsness would be making a “grave mistake” if he didn’t return to the Pirates.

As I was on the phone with a friend of mine yesterday afternoon, I flipped open my laptop to scan the news headlines. One led me to stories and opinion columns about criticism of recent votes by a U.S. House committee to sharply cut funding to NASA, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation for study of earth sciences.

Earth-science study, in this case, includes study of climate change. The new Republican majority in the House has many members who strongly oppose study of climate change. Some because they don’t think it’s real. Some because they don’t think its causes are man-made. Or, if it is real, some don’t think its effects will be a big deal.

One of the stories I read suggested another reason House Republicans don’t want to invest more in studying the causes of climate change: they’re afraid of what the answers will be.

Afraid, because the answers won’t be politically easy for them. Afraid, because the responses those answers will require won’t be accomplished without hard work, the kind of work and commitment that means big changes in how most Americans live. It takes a lot of political will – and personal guts – to stand up to big-moneyed special interests like the oil industry. And it takes the heart of a leader to show Americans that changes in how we use energy, in how we live, are necessary.

So anyway, I as I read these headlines, my friend and I begin talking about one of his favorite topics – the wildlife and plants and flowers around where he lives.

He spends more time than anyone else I know in the outdoors, in nature. He pays attention, and, he sees a lot.

But this spring it was something he hasn’t seen that he thought was important to discuss. Normally, the plum trees on land he tends to or visits both in the countryside and in the town where he lives are filled with warblers.

Not this year.

“I’ve seen only one in town,” he said. “And in the country, along the river there, I’ve seen none.

“Not a single one.”

The plum trees are all there yet, as thick as ever. But the warblers are gone, and so is another group of creatures that typically drew the warblers to the plum trees.

One day in April, my friend went out to the country, to the plum trees along the river, unfolded a lawn chair and sat with pen and notepad. He kept a tally of every species of bird he saw, but as he realized he wasn’t seeing warblers, he also began to notice there were no insects in the plum trees. He walked over, peered among the branches, looked around the ground, and saw no insects, which warblers feed on.

It’s not only warblers and little bugs absent from places they normally are seen, but my friend talked about butterflies which usually flutter thickly and freely among his crab apple trees. “Last year I saw one butterfly. Just a single butterfly.”

He also has seen birds in the past two years that he’s never before seen in his long life, birds well out of their normal range when they start showing up in Minnesota: a southern tanager and a brightly colored Lazuli bunting.

He’s not the only one to notice such things. Scientists in many fields are noting large-scale changes in behavior of several species. Butterflies and birds are found farther north around the world than they ever have been. Some migratory birds are changing their migration routes. Polar bears are losing ground, literally, as their hunting ground and hunting seasons shrink.

I turned to one of my favorite science writers, the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for her book discussing the implications of climate change, The Sixth Extinction. In a post on the New Yorker’s web site yesterday, Kolbert chastised members of Congress for evading responsibility on the issue of climate change.

“Cutting NASA and the N.S.F.’s climate-science budgets isn’t going to alter the basic realities of climate change,” Kolbert wrote. “No one needs an advanced degree to understand this. Indeed, the idea that ignoring a problem isn’t going to make it go away is one that kids should grasp by the time they’re six or seven. But ignoring a problem does often make it more difficult to solve. And that, you have to assume, in a perverse way, is the goal here. What we don’t know, we can’t act on.”

That sounds a lot like what my friend said yesterday afternoon, as he pondered why those who don’t want to study climate change, and those who simply think it’s not happening, think the way they do.

“All I can think is that these are people who know perfectly well it is true, and they are scared to death of the future and don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

It isn’t just in warblers or bees that the effects of climate change are showing up. Global temperatures were higher again in 2014. The permafrost within the Arctic Circle is melting. Ocean water levels are rising. Carbon dioxide levels in our oceans are rising, killing off varieties of shellfish by calcifying them. Glaciers are melting, and not just along the sea. In America’s Glacier National Park in Montana, there were 150 glaciers in 1850. Now, there are just 25. It’s predicted all the glaciers within the park could be melted by 2030. I hope they have a new name for the place ready to go by then.

These things are not theoretical. They are happening now.

Whether you believe in climate change or not, whether you believe man’s the cause of it or not, at the very least, wouldn’t you look at these very real and very large changes and want to know why they are happening? Whether it scares you to death or not, wouldn’t you want to know?

Happy to have my 2011 poem “A New Approach,” carried today by the online anthology  A Year of Being Here.

http://www.ayearofbeinghere.com/2015/04/dana-yost-new-approach.html

There’s been some pretty good recent company on the site too: three of the previous four poems came from Steve Kowit, Denise Levertov and Czeslaw Milosz. More than happy to join a group like that!

My poem “Where the Music Died,” has won the District Lit Reader’s Choice Award, I learned today in an e-mail from District Lit’s founding editor, Diana Smith Bolton.

It is a poem about the day I took my mother to see the site of the 1959 plane crash that killed the young rock stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The plane crashed in a farm field not too far south of where I live. The poem was published by District Lit in 2013 and was among the nominees for the inaugural Reader’s Choice Award, which pulled together a group of nominees from among the poems published by District Lit the last 2-1/2 years.

District Lit, from suburban Washington D.C., is a very solid literary journal, with a strong annual crop of pieces nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net awards, so it was nice to be recognized with the nomination — and now, well, very nice to get the award. Some of you reading this may have voted in the online poll, so thank you, too.

It’s not just the award that’s cool about this, but that there’ll be more recognition coming. District Lit plans to feature my poem and the winning short story in the fiction contest (by Faith Gardner) in a display at its book at the Association of Writing Programs (AWP) annual convention next month in Minneapolis. It’s April 8-11 at the Minneapolis Convention Center and Hilton Minneapolis Hotel. AWP is a big gathering, mostly of the nation’s college writing programs, and is held in a different city each year. This year, there will be more than 2,000 presenters and 550 readings, panel discussions and lectures.

Plus, District Lit will publish a chapbook of my poem and Faith Gardner’s short story and make copies available at AWP.

If you haven’t seen the poem, here it is:

Where the Music Died 

It’s where the music died

the place she has thought about,

off and on, for fifty-three years:

the farm field, the bodies flung

from the falling, thudding plane

into the ice and snow and dirt.

Now she is here, a graying, ill woman,

still younger than Buddy Holly would have been,

still older than Ritchie Valens would have been.

It’s Holly she’s come for:

The strong-jawed Texan,

defiant in the studio,

defiant in his music — guitars of rage and rebellion and youth,

lyrics of such ferocity that she knew he not only understood love,

but had plunged a fist into the blood and meat of it, found its heart.

Barbed-wire, concrete block, daddy’s crossed-arms: None

stand a chance stopping a fire like that.

And what girl wouldn’t want that?

We’ve taken her there, north of Clear Lake.

Not much of a shrine, the simplicity, the absence

of commercialism, is a nod, it’s said,

to modesty and the sanctity of death.

But it is so modest as to be cheapened,

I think: a super-sized, sheet-metaled pair of black

horn-rimmed glasses at the road side,

and, in the field itself, a pair of shiny silver metal cut-outs,

on the lip of a field path, pressed against barbed-wire

separating a corn field from a soybean field.

The crash site is kitsch site, too. Fans, tourists

leave random personal belongings beneath the two markers,

scarves, beads, bottle of cologne, glasses, plastic flowers, combs, small change:

it’s as if someone dumped a purse upside down.

My mother says a couple things about this, but otherwise

is content to stand where the singers died,

to think of a past where she was a beauty: spry,

a cheerleader, eye-catcher of young men in two states.

Music does this, of course, lets us hum through time, place, memory.

So does thinking about death.

The crash site gives both,

and my mother shuffles her feet through the little piles

of debris, making her way around the markers, nearly

getting snagged by the fencing.

Ground lightning off to the west. But she’s in no hurry.

Is she saying a graveside prayer?

Maybe singing “Oh Boy,” to herself.

We take some photos.

Then she speaks, saying something about Buddy Holly’s wife

being pregnant when he died —

his young wife.

On our way back to the car, I tap my fingers

on the steel of the big pair of glasses,

and they make a slight pinging noise.

I’d like to say it sounds like a guitar chord, but it doesn’t.

It just sounds like sheet metal in the open air of Iowa,

in a place where men died.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot of editorials at election time, saying get out and vote. It’s your civic duty, and your voice at the ballot box does count. At times, I’ve endorsed a politician. At times, a school referendum.

Today’s a little different: I’m endorsing myself :)

A poem of mine, published in February 2013, is up for a Reader’s Choice Award from the literary journal that published it. So here is your chance to weigh in, cast a ballot (get a little practice before the 2016 general elections!), and also get engaged a little with the literary community.

The timing, from my view, is interesting: my poem that is up for the award is “Where the Music Died,” based on the day I took my mom out to the Buddy Holly plane crash site not far south of where I live. This past weekend was the anniversary of the plane crash, which also killed the pop stars Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake marked the anniversary, as it does every year, with its annual Winter Dance Party series of concerts.

District Lit, based in northern Virginia, made the announcement today about the Reader’s Choice Award. From the announcement:

District Lit will honor one fiction writer and one poet with the 2015 District Lit Readers’ Choice Award. Winners will be promoted at District Lit’s booth at AWP 2015 in Minneapolis and will see their work in print, also to be available at AWP. 

Vote for your favorite poem and fiction piece published in District Lit using this survey link or by going to the “2015 Readers’ Choice Awards” page at districtlit.com. To ensure your vote has been tallied, please enter your email address and press the “submit” button at the bottom of the survey. Only one vote per email address is accepted. All pieces published in District Lit through December 31, 2014 are eligible for the Readers’ Choice Awards. [AWP is the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Its annual convention is a big thing, especially among college creative writing programs. And other authors.]

The Readers’ Choice Award contest will be open from Friday, February 6 through Friday, March 6, 2015.

We will announce the winners before AWP in a special update to District Lit, as well as through our e-mail list, Twitter, and Facebook.

Here is my poem. If you like it, I’d like your vote!

***

Where the Music Died

Dana Yost

 

It’s where the music died

the place she has thought about,

off and on, for fifty-three years:

the farm field, the bodies flung

from the falling, thudding plane

into the ice and snow and dirt.

Now she is here, a graying, ill woman,

still younger than Buddy Holly would have been,

still older than Richie Valens would have been.

It’s Holly she’s come for:

The strong-jawed Texan,

defiant in the studio,

defiant in his music — guitars of rage and rebellion and youth,

lyrics of such ferocity that she knew he not only understood love,

but had plunged a fist into the blood and meat of it, found its heart.

Barbed-wire, concrete block, daddy’s crossed-arms: None

stand a chance stopping a fire like that.

And what girl wouldn’t want that?

We’ve taken her there, north of Clear Lake.

Not much of a shrine, the simplicity, the absence

of commercialism, is a nod, it’s said,

to modesty and the sanctity of death.

But it is so modest as to be cheapened,

I think: a super-sized, sheet-metaled pair of black

horn-rimmed glasses at the road side,

and, in the field itself, a pair of shiny silver metal cut-outs,

on the lip of a field path, pressed against barbed-wire

separating a corn field from a soybean field.

The crash site is kitsch site, too. Fans, tourists

leave random personal belongings beneath the two markers,

scarves, beads, bottle of cologne, glasses, plastic flowers, combs, small change:

it’s as if someone dumped a purse upside down.

My mother says a couple things about this, but otherwise

is content to stand where the singers died,

to think of a past where she was a beauty: spry,

a cheerleader, eye-catcher of young men in two states.

Music does this, of course, lets us hum through time, place, memory.

So does thinking about death.

The crash site gives both,

and my mother shuffles her feet through the little piles

of debris, making her way around the markers, nearly

getting snagged by the fencing.

Ground lightning off to the west. But she’s in no hurry.

Is she saying a graveside prayer?

Maybe singing “Oh Boy,” to herself.

We take some photos.

Then she speaks, saying something about Buddy Holly’s wife

being pregnant when he died —

his young wife.

On our way back to the car, I tap my fingers

on the steel of the big pair of glasses,

and they make a slight pinging noise.

I’d like to say it sounds like a guitar chord, but it doesn’t.

It just sounds like sheet metal in the open air of Iowa,

in a place where men died.